Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Am I having an Impact?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 24, 2010

The scientific community is fairly sensitised to the word ‘impact’ by now, and many of us will have written Pathways to Impact Statements, and read some too. I sit on the REF Physics Pilot panel, so I have seen a broad range of submissions from universities seeking to demonstrate impact and yet, when it comes to my own research, it seems I don’t recognize impact closer to home. I have no intention of spilling the beans about what I have read elsewhere, or pass comment on how the REF Pilot has gone, but I would like to share some thoughts about just how hard it is to know, close to home, what is good/bad or indifferent.

Now there are some obvious examples of ‘impact’ that no one would dispute – unless purely for the sake of debate. From my own department, Richard Friend’s research on organic semiconductors has spawned an industry – which may or may not yet prove to be economically successful – and his third spin-out Eight19 has just received funding. Under any set of criteria I think one can conclude his research has had impact, although I would go so far as to say (based on some REF submissions I saw) it would be possible, even so, to write a case that completely obfuscated this incontrovertible fact if not careful.  But, for most of us, without a spin-out or even a patent to our name, we probably wonder if we have indeed delivered in a way the government would recognize, however certain that what we are doing is exciting, cutting edge and entirely  worth funding.  And I would posit that actually we may have no idea of how, where or indeed why others may see impact in the work that we did for our own motivations. I would like to illustrate this supposition based on my own experiences, brought sharply into focus by a recent blogpost by an ex-colleague and collaborator Ian Hopkinson, entitled Wallpaper paste and the giant death ray.

For many years I worked on starch granule structure; indeed it was my first foray into a real, messy biological system and I cut my teeth on it. I used primarily synchrotron radiation, with a few neutrons thrown in for good measure, to characterise the underlying structure, the hierarchical packing in the granule and to explore the differences between different species, cultivars and mutants. I worked with plant breeders and biochemists, and learnt a lot of my basic plant biology from Alison Smith at the JIC, during a wonderful few years of collaboration, and benefitted from a long and enjoyable relationship with Dr Peter Frazier at Dalgety-Spillers, now defunct and transformed into part of du Pont (shortly after which the interaction died a sudden and rather sad death).  The interest in starch, however, actually started from a very different starting place based on my background on mechanical properties of synthetic polymers: Dr Andrew Smith at the Institute of Food Research was pursuing a project on extruding starch and wanted to understand the mechanical properties of foamed foods, as exemplified by Cheesy Wotsits, and so I set out, through a collaboration with them, to study the deformation and failure of such products, and how processing affected these properties and consequently ‘mouthfeel’.

The more I learnt about this process, and the more (awkward) questions I asked, the more I realised that people didn’t have a very firm grip of starch granule structure, the raw product, or at least not in a way that satisfied the physicist in me. So, for nearly 20 years, I worked on ways of characterising the internal structure of the granule.  With some of my collaborators we ran a series of international conferences dedicated to bringing people from very different backgrounds together, from chemical engineering to plant breeders (see the 2nd volume we published as a conference proceeding for further information). Tom Waigh , working with me as a PhD student, made the connection between the packing of the amylopectin side chains into lamellae with side chain liquid crystalline polymers, another subject I have tangled with in the past, and that framework helped to explain many aspects of starch’s response – to heat, to cold, to processing etc. Above all we had fun. And when it ceased to be fun, I walked away (although, to my shame, I still have one outstanding paper on my desk a year after the departed student sent it to me). By that point I did not find it difficult to resist the offer of 100 different wheat varieties  to compare and contrast, and similar blandishments.

However, I may have walked away and stopped reading the literature, but what I did is still out there. Now to some extent it is coming back to haunt me or, to use more politically correct language, it is coming back to demonstrate that, without me knowing it, it has had ‘impact’. The first indication of this was from the BBSRC who decided to include me in their list of 50 scientists who had made a real impact on the UK’s society and economy. Their 2009 publication Bioscience:Biomillions was meant to exemplify this to Government, although I was fairly stumped when asked to estimate what the net value derived from my research had been. They continued to be interested in using this work as a significant example (or perhaps they were just making their life easy by using the same examples) and in their May 2010 Impact Feature chose to highlight this work in their section on ‘Food Fighters’.  OK, so this all ties in with the source of my funding and is perhaps just saying my work had gone well. But, and the prompting for this post, I did not expect to find my work being picked up much more broadly and reaching places where I would never have found it had it not been for Ian Hopkinson’s post. He pasted diagrams  from Braukaiser into his writing. For those of you, like me, who aren’t familiar with Braukaiser it is a site dedicated to German brewing and specifically how German beers are made. And there, on the site, are references to several of my starch papers and schematic diagrams derived from them such as the one Ian had used.

Now make the comparison: the particular paper Tom, Ian and I co-authored in Macromolecules (and the separate issue of how best to publish interdisciplinary science I’ll leave for another day) has 71 citations on the Web of Science, the Braukaiser site has had (according to its meter) more than 70,000 hits, although clearly not all would have gone so far as to look at the details of the starch granule hidden at its centre. I could never have written two pages describing the tortuous pathway from Cheesy Wotsits to German beer via a couple of synchrotrons to describe potential impact. But, perhaps more worryingly for the current agenda, even in hindsight I would find it hard to write a decent description of the impact of the fundamental science I did which just happens to percolate many different areas, let alone set a monetary worth on the knock-on consequences. I am perfectly willing to try to write such ‘Pathways to Impact’ statements, but this episode has just reminded me of the frequent impossibility of doing it fruitfully.

One Response to “Am I having an Impact?”

  1. It’s interesting to read the genesis of this work, of which I was partially aware, the visit to ESRF stuck in my mind more vividly!

    I wrote a very short post on the financial impact that a paper can have many years after the event:

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